Can we survive our own response to global warming?

Earlier today I suggested that it might be worthwhile to consider how we adjust to the massive consequences of climate change (including depletion of a major part of our biome) rather than hoping that somehow we will find the will to do what is necessary to drastically cut greenhouse emissions. The task would have been enormous in any event, but given how intransigent the Republican opposition is, the willingness of opponents to use “debating tricks” and appeals to anti-intellectualism (which is always just below the surface in all appeals made by Republicans) to avoid an intelligent discussion of policy alternatives, and the shocking political incompetence of the administration on all domestic initiatives, the hope of meaningful reduction of emissions in the near term is essentially misplaced. So it seemed that the alternative–accepting the inevitability of climate change and preparing to minimize its effects–ought to be studied.

In a preview view of an article in Climate Conservation, Will R. Turner of Conservation Internation with five co-authors publish “Climate change: helping nature survive the human response.” They state the problem: “The natural systems upon which people depend, already under direct assault from climate change, are further threatened by how we respond to climate change. Human history and recent studies suggest that our actions to cope with climate change (adaptation) or lessen its rate and magnitude (mitigation) could have impacts that match—and even exceed—the direct effects of climate changeon ecosystems.”

Reduction in crop yields will put pressure on farmers to invade areas considered preservation priorities, as they illustrate with a map of farming and areas deemed vital for wildlife preservation in South Africa. Flooding will put pressure on forests near population centers. “With inadequate planning, if just a fraction of the world’s one billion coastal residents moved inland and began to clear land for agriculture, gather fuelwood, and hunt, the result would likely be substantial losses of biodiversity.  A fifth of Earth’s remaining tropical forests lie within a few days’ walk (50 km) of human populations that could be inundated by a 1 m rise in sea level …” (Tim Naish, an Antarctic researcher at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington, has been quoted in a Sydney Herald article, July 6, 2010, as saying that a 1 meter rise in sea level is possible by the end of this century.)

Our responses planned and forced may exacerbate the problem. For an example of the former, hydroelectric dams as an alternative to carbon-based fuels may compromise the flora and fauna of the newly flooded plain. Migration is an example of unplanned responses. The paper gives the example of Burkina Faso: “frequent droughts and high rainfall variability were significant factors in human migration into southern and western Burkina Faso in the late 20th century …. This population shift fueled a provincial-scale agricultural expansion that converted 13% of existing forests and savannas to croplands, with some localities recording natural vegetation losses of 50%.”

Although Dr. Turner is optimistic that the problems are not intractable, they are certainly daunting as shown by his statement in the EurekAlert! release on this paper:

“Climate change mitigation and adaptation are essential. We have to ensure that these responses do not compromise the biodiversity and ecosystem services upon which societies ultimately depend. We have to reduce emissions, we have to ensure the stability of food supplies jeopardized by climate change, we have to help people survive severe weather events – but we must plan these things so that we don’t destroy life-sustaining forests, wetlands, and oceans in the process.”

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